f/1.8 lens, stopped down, shot with f/1.4 lens, open

I have many times recommended 50mm f/1.8 lenses, and I’ll try to inspire you once more to go out and get one right now. Most manufacturers have a cheap lens like this:


As you will have heard me say many times, this lens is cheap, small, light, fast and sharp.

Ideal for portraits or for low-light subjects or images where you want to dramatically blur the background. If this lens is not in your kit yet, I recommend you add it immediately.

As you will have seen in the previous post, I shot Prof Dawkins yesterday with just sich a lens (my 50mm f/1.4).


I photographed Richard Dawkins tonight. In the sold-out Bader theatre in Toronto, where he introduced his new book to an enthusiastic crowd:


Usually, theatre lighting is quite simple – if you get to sit in the right place. Since my son Daniel and I sat in the very front row, today was no exception. The background is dark but the subject is lit brightly:


I did not need more than 400 ISO, which gave me 1/100 sec at f/2.8. In manual exposure mode, of course.

“No flash“, the slightly inept people from the publishing house (who did not believe I had talked to their colleague on the phone earlier – Simon and Schuster Canada, you lost out on some free shots!), said time and time again. (The Dawkins web people aren’t very responsive either: four attempts to contact them. to multiple email addresses, offering free coverage – and zero responses: instead, I helped their own shooter, who was an ’emerging pro’ and asked for some advice).

No problem!

The only problem was focus. My 50mm f/1.4 lens front focused on the 1Ds MkIII by at least 6 inches, which is disastrous. I had to adjust it to a setting of “+17” (out of a possible 20!) in the ten or so minutes before prof Dawkins arrived. The 35mm f/1.4 and 24-70mm lens would not properly focus at all in this light (they were consistently way off), so while I switched many times, I kept coming back to the 50mm lens with +17 adjustment.

One day Canon will make a camera that focuses well. Perhaps. I am not holding my breath.


Anyway, I got some nice shots. Photojournalism is never easy, but sitting about 10 ft away from Richard Dawkins makes up for a lot.


(A few more shots here)

Fire tips

I have no idea why today reminded me to write something about photographing fires.

All I did today was do a very pleasant workshop presentation to a packed crowd at Kraft Canada about “making better photos” – 50 enthusiastic people in a room for 90 minutes to look at pictures and talk about photography – and tonight I shot people at a business seminar in a Burlington hotel for West of the City magazine. That shoot presented the usual issues (I get there and the seminar is about to start, so only a minute instead of the planned hour for pictures).Fun, though: I love shooting events.

But how does that get me to shooting fires? No idea. But fire tips it is!

Tip one: avoid them.

Tips two and on: if you do shoot a fire, be careful and follow authorities’ orders. And also:

  • Shoot firemen against the smoke
  • Catch flames
  • Be upwind of the fire
  • Also consider wide lenses to capture the smoke

I shot this recently when I got the a Burlington fire way before the authorities did, so I was in the inner circle, while other photographers who arrived moments later were unable to get there:


These were used in The Hamilton Spectator.

Background shapes and curves

In composition, if you can spot opportunities to use shapes and curves, your portraits will benefit.

S-curves in particular are pleasing, like the gentle curve of the background beach coastline here on Toronto Island during the model shoot a week ago, last Monday:


The trees too provide a useful counterpoint to the lovely model.

Now, not that I want to compare my work to that of great artists, but does that background remind you of something?


It does me. No coincidence of course:I recognised the possibility of the nice background because I have been trained to see it by being exposed to great art.

Which goes to show that the way we react to composition has not changed much in the last few centuries. If you want to learn about composition, go visit a museum.


How do you make an image three-dimensional, like this?

Israel, August 2006

Israel, August 2006

This is very simple and needs only two things.

  1. Use the widest lens angle (in my case here, 16mm on a full frame camera, so that means 10mm on a crop camera like a D90 or 50D)
  2. Get close
  3. If you want the blurry background, use a wide aperture (small “F-number”, like f/4). Else use a small aperture (large F-number, like f/16).

That’s all. Every time an object “jumps out of the page”, it’s wide angle.